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Quadroon, and the associated words quarteron, octoroon and quintroon are terms that, historically, were applied to define the ancestry of people of mixed-race, generally of African and European ancestry in the slave societies of the Americas, but also, within Australia, to those of Aboriginal and European ancestry. Governments incorporated the terms in law defining rights and restrictions. The use of such terminology is a characteristic of hypodescent, which is the practice within a society of assigning children of mixed unions to the ethnic group which is perceived by the dominant group as being subordinate.[1] The racial designations refer specifically to the number of full-blooded African ancestors or equivalent, emphasizing the quantitative least, with quadroon signifying that a person has one-quarter black ancestry, etc.


Three generations in the same family
General Dumas: mulatto

The word "quadroon" was borrowed from the French quarteron, and Spanish cuarterón, which have their roots in the Latin quartus, meaning fourth. The word octoroon is derived from quadroon, and rooted in the Latin octo, which means eight.

Quadroon was used to designate a person of one-quarter African/Aboriginal ancestry, that is one biracial parent (African/Aboriginal and Caucasian) and one Caucasian parent; in other words, one African/Aboriginal grandparent and three Caucasian grandparents.[2] In Latin America, which had a variety of terms for racial groups, some terms for quadroons were morisco or chino.

The term mulatto was used to designate a person who was biracial, with one black parent and one white parent.[2] In some cases, it became a general term to refer to all persons of mixed race.

The term octoroon referred to a person with one-eighth African/Aboriginal ancestry;[3] that is, someone with family heritage of one biracial grandparent; in other words, one African great-grandparent and seven European great-grandparents. As with the use of quadroon, this word was applied to a limited extent in Australia for those of one-eighth Aboriginal ancestry, as the government implemented assimilation policies. In Latin America, a term for octoroon is albino.

Terceron was a term synonymous with octoroon, derived from being three generations of descent from an African ancestor (great-grandparent).[4] The term mustee was also used to refer to a person with one-eighth African ancestry, while mustefino refers to a person with one-sixteenth African ancestry.[2] The terms "quintroon" or "hexadecaroon" were also used.

In Latin America, the terms griffe or sambo were sometimes used for an individual of three-quarters African heritage, or the child of a biracial parent and a fully black parent.[2]

During the antebellum period, abolitionists featured mulattoes and other light-skinned former slaves in public lectures in the North, to arouse public sentiments against slavery by showing Northerners slaves who were visually indistinguishable from them, preventing them from putting the people in the category of "other".[5]

In literature and pop culture[edit]

The figure of the "tragic octoroon" or "tragic mulatta" became a stock character of abolitionist literature in the antebellum era, beginning in 1836 with the first American anti-slavery novel, Richard Hildreth's The Slave and including Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestselling 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and the extremely popular 1859 play by Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon.[6] Stereotypically, a light-skinned woman is raised as a white woman in her father's household, until his bankruptcy or death leaves her reduced to a menial position or even sold into slavery.[7] In some cases, she may be unaware of her full ancestry before being reduced to victimization, as in Lydia Maria Child's short story, The Quadrons.[8] This stock character allowed abolitionists to reveal the sexual exploitation prevalent in slavery.

In the period after the American Civil War, Southerners also began writing about people of mixed race, as a way to explore the many contradictions in a postwar society based on a binary division of race. The topic continues to be a means to explore race in society. Authors in the early 20th century were writing against a background of legal racial segregation and disfranchisement in the South; the successes of the civil rights movement have not solved all problems. Authors in the 21st century are writing historical novels set in the 19th century that explore racial permutations.

The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, 1899, by Charles W. Chesnutt

20th-century to present[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kottak, Conrad Phillip. "Chapter 11: Ethnicity and Race," Mirror for Humanity a Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 238. Print.
  2. ^ a b c d Carter G. Woodson and Charles H. Wesley, The Story of the Negro Retold, (Wildside Press, LLC, 2008), p. 44: The mulatto was the offspring of a white and a black person; the sambo of a mulatto and a black. From the mulatto and a white came the quadroon and from the quadroon and a white the mustee. The child of a mustee and a white person was called the mustefino.
  3. ^ Princeton University WordNet Search: octoroon
  4. ^ Wikisource: from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Octoroon
  5. ^ Lawrence R. Tenzer, "White Slaves"
  6. ^ Zanger, Jules (Spring 1966). "The "Tragic Octoroon" In Pre-Civil War Fiction". American Quarterly 18 (1): 63–70. 
  7. ^ Ariela J. Gross, What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, p. 61 ISBN 978-0-674-03130-2
  8. ^ Kathy Davis. "Headnote to Lydia Maria Child's 'The Quadroons' and 'Slavery's Pleasant Homes'."
  9. ^ Railton, Stephen. "Richard Hildreth's Slave". Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture. University of Virginia. Retrieved 4 August 2014. 


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